At Wilbur Cross, optimism survives despite long odds

It’s 11:44 on a Friday morning, and the hallways of Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood are flooded with students rushing to class.

“Get inside, everybody. Let’s go!” Principal Robert Canelli shouts good-naturedly. “There’s nothing to worry about. The late bell didn’t ring yet.”

The 1,468 faces in this stampede — minus some absences — reflect the diversity of the New Haven community at large. Some 43 percent of students are Hispanic, another 43 percent are black, over 15 percent are learning disabled, and about 12 percent are bilingual or speak English as a second language. Victor Vessicchio, an assistant principal, compared the school’s soccer team to a United Nations delegation.

“Whether you’re in a wheelchair, whether you’re blind, whether you’re semi-retarded, whether you’re a mother, we will teach you,” Canelli said.

That is, as long as the students do not drop out: this month, the number of freshmen at the school is more than twice the number of seniors. One of two non-magnet public high schools in New Haven, Wilbur Cross is struggling with the same problems of disobedience and underachievement that plague urban schools nationwide. The disparity between students at Wilbur Cross can be staggering; some will apply to Yale, while others will, as Canelli bluntly put it, end up in jail.

The school’s administration is taking a three-pronged approach to narrow this gap. Canelli, who became principal last year, has implemented strict codes of behavior and dress. Faculty and staff are devising academic programs to meet new district-imposed standards. And recent physical renovations have made the school more inviting, bolstering student morale, administrators said. With some luck, these moves will help keep half the freshman class from falling behind.

Canelli, at least, is optimistic. A veteran principal, Canelli said he has transformed two other New Haven public schools: High School in the Community and Sheridan Middle School. He vows to give Wilbur Cross a similar makeover.

When Canelli arrived at the school, fights were routine and fire alarms sounded every other day. Students would roam the hallways during class, CD players and snacks in hand. Canelli focused immediately on creating an orderly “school climate.” He instituted a zero-tolerance policy for bringing weapons, drugs or alcohol into school, pulling a fire alarm or starting a fight. In most cases, violators were expelled.

Last year was a transitional time — Canelli’s “rookie year,” one history teacher said — but, this fall, misbehavior is rare.

Canelli has also prohibited students from leaving class without a note from their teacher. Roger Robinson, the security aide known to students as “Big Rog,” roams the second-floor hallway and joshes with stragglers before shooing them back to class.

Behavior is restricted inside the classroom, too. The list of forbidden items is long, including food, hats, doo-rags, jackets, headphones and cell phones. Canelli himself patrols the hallways and peers into rooms, his eyes peeled for transgressors.

“What did I tell you about wearing a coat in school?” Canelli scolded one student last week, his head cocked playfully to one side.

Teachers said they have noticed a definite difference in student behavior this year.

“It’s easier for teachers to focus on teaching than it was a year ago,” Jim Brochin, a history and civics teacher, said. “Students come to class more on time. Overall, I have fewer absences. Expectations have been made really clear.”

Beyond an orderly atmosphere, academic performance is the administration’s primary concern. New Haven, in collaboration with the Stupski Foundation, has launched an initiative to help public schools collect data on “Tier 1 indicators” such as test scores, attendance records and graduation rates. In the next few months, each school will use these statistics to set goals that they will pursue through new policies and programs.

One of Wilbur Cross’ goals may be to increase the number of students with perfect attendance by 10 percent, Michele Sherban-Kline, an administrative intern, said. Wilbur Cross may also try to reduce transfers to and from the school. Last year, about 240 students enrolled mid-year and about 190 students withdrew.

Wilbur Cross has already made strides in math and reading. After tenth-graders scored poorly on the math section of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test last year, the administration moved senior faculty to freshman math classes and started a math lab for freshmen who were having trouble with algebra.

John Waselik is teaching his math lab students how to manipulate fractions. But with freshmen who barely know basic multiplication and division, progress is slow. If Waselik asked each of his 23 students to compute the product of nine and seven, only about five would immediately give the correct answer, he said.

Freshmen who read below a ninth grade level must enroll in Read 180, a class that combines computer programs with more traditional literacy exercises. Students rotate among three stations: computers, silent reading and working with the teacher.

The computer program, which has three interactive reading games, is a clear favorite. For freshman Stevelle McKenzie, 25 minutes in Read Zone on Monday was not enough. Oblivious to the teacher’s call of “rotate!” McKenzie stared at the words on his screen and confidently pronounced “unbeatable — minutes — lives” into a microphone. He grinned as a voice congratulated him through his thick earphones. Next came harder words: “citizen — unforgettable — shortages.”

“It’s instant gratification,” Rich Scialabba, a Read 180 teacher, said of the computer program. “The kids are making it more or less like a competition.”

Read 180 would be impossible without the $50 million renovations that last year brought computers to every classroom. Several teachers said the renovations, which took over five years, have transformed the mood at Wilbur Cross.

The school now has a new auditorium, pool and athletic field. The lockers are bright red instead of dusty tan, and the classrooms have Internet access, whiteboards and air conditioning. The school even added a foyer with three murals of East Rock mounted on the whitewashed walls.

Vessicchio, who coached football at Wilbur Cross for 18 years until 1993, said the new athletic field has enhanced school spirit. Until last year, Wilbur Cross played every football game at its rival school, Hillhouse. Now Wilbur Cross can finally play home games on its own turf.

“There’s a sense of pride now with the kids,” Vessicchio said. “They have their own space. They’re not the step-son anymore.”

But it remains to be seen whether nicer facilities, an improved climate and remedial academic programs will encourage more students to stay in school. Academic success often depends on the subpopulation in question. Each group — the learning disabled students, those learning English as a second language, the ninth graders reading at a second grade level, the seniors applying to Yale — experiences Wilbur Cross differently.

“There’s a pocket of people who take all the AP classes,” senior Mara Revkin said. “But it’s easy to fall through the cracks.”

Students walk between classes at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School, where recent renovations and new policies are intended to improve the academic atmosphere and keep kids in school.
Gillian Gillers
Students walk between classes at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School, where recent renovations and new policies are intended to improve the academic atmosphere and keep kids in school.

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